I am disabled, but I haven’t always identified this way.
My mum took me to the GP for self-harm at 14. The GP prescribed me anti-depressants and referred me to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) where I was diagnosed with depression and admitted into an outpatient program at an adolescent psychiatric unit. I have been accessing public mental health services for 11 years. I’m now 25.
Several months prior to this, I had been possessed by frenetic creativity and uncharacteristic disinhibition — rushing home to the family desktop computer to write lengthy stories and pursue an online age gap romance with my cousin’s girlfriend. These highs and lows would continue, untreated and unmanaged, until I was 19 and diagnosed with bipolar disorder and generalised anxiety disorder.
Most of the time I was capable; I could dress, eat and go to class. So I rejected my classmate’s proposition.
When I’m depressed I experience low mood, debilitating fatigue, poor concentration, body aches and pains, social avoidance, suicidal thoughts, and an absence of motivation and pleasure. Hypomania feels like a cocaine high. I’m euphoric, inspired, impulsive, talkative, restless, sleepless and hypersexual. A mixed episode combines each extreme. I have at least one major depressive episode (one to three month duration) and several shorter episodes per year. My anxiety is chronic.
At university I always had flare-ups around assessment time. In first year, a classmate noticed me struggling to meet deadlines: ‘Why don’t you register for ELS?’ ELS, or Equitable Learning Services, makes academic allowances for students with a disability, chronic illness or mental health condition. ‘Disability’ thwarted me. How was mental illness — invisible and elusive — in the same league as disability? Most of the time I was capable; I could dress, eat and go to class.
I rejected my classmate’s proposition.
I have always felt strange, bad — wrong. In childhood, my parents and teachers tried to ‘cure’ my shyness by forcing me into uncomfortable situations. My ‘shyness’ was selective mutism, a childhood social anxiety disorder characterised by an inability to speak in specific social settings. I wanted to talk, to connect, but physically I couldn’t.
I couldn’t hold down a job — couldn’t make it past the first interview. I couldn’t maintain friendships. I was too anxious to socialise.
By early adulthood, I accepted that there were things I might never be able to do, like work full- or part-time to not survive on government benefits. I couldn’t hold down a job — couldn’t make it past the first interview. I couldn’t maintain friendships. I was too anxious to socialise.
Stigma was an abstract concept to me then. I knew what it was and that it applied to me, but I couldn’t extricate myself from its influence. My illness was as trivial as Melbourne’s ‘bipolar’ weather. It didn’t matter how on top of my self-care I was. There was something ugly at my core.
In late 2018, a friend linked me to a Facebook post advertising the Nexus Program, a professional development program with Arts Access Victoria — an organisation that employs people with disabilities — for artists aged 18-28 with lived experience of mental health recovery. I applied and was accepted into the program, along with nine other peers.
The eight-week program comprised peer mentoring, industry guest speakers, creative and career exercises, and a group residency at Malthouse Theatre for The Other Film Festival. The program built confidence in my abilities as an artist and mental health advocate, and spurred my involvement in community projects I previously didn’t feel ‘qualified’ or ‘adequate’ enough to pursue.
I feel more in control of my needs now, and better able to communicate them.
The institutionalised perception that disability is abnormal, undesirable and best controlled by medical professionals conforms to what’s known as the medical model of disability. The social model of disability says that it’s the discrimination and stigma that ‘disable’ the individual. Diagnosis and treatment have taught me how to track and avoid triggers, and build emotional resilience. I don’t deny the importance of medical intervention; it has made living easier.
Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) includes mental illness in its definition of disability. Disability Support Pension (DSP) exists to provide financial assistance for people with a ‘permanent physical, intellectual or psychiatric condition that stops [them] from working’ and pays an extra $300 per fortnight than unemployment or study benefits. I have never been recommended for DSP.
During the Nexus program I was surrounded by people who celebrated, encouraged and accommodated my difference. They showed me kindness, patience, and respect. In this safe and accepting space, my true self emerged — and I liked her.
How I navigate the world has changed and so have my standards for self-worth. I feel more in control of my needs now, and better able to communicate them. My involvement in disability advocacy has alerted me to the fundamental inaccessibility of physical and social environments for people with visible and invisible disabilities. I am realising that I am not responsible for others’ attitudes and perceptions. My duty is to myself — and knowing that I am perfect just the way I am.
Romy Durrant is a Melbourne-based writer and co-founder and managing editor of Lor Journal.